Every time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, politicians and pundits alike are quick to tweet out their “thoughts and prayers,” much to the appeasement or chagrin of victims and their families. The phrase has become politicized and controversial, signifying solidarity to some, and inaction to others. On Sunday, October 1, 2017 we suffered the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. modern history with more than 50 people murdered by a single man wielding an automatic weapon in Las Vegas. Politicians from President Trump to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval began sending out their prayers. Now we find ourselves once again amidst a national conversation on gun violence, and it is time for change.
The intentions (or lack thereof) behind the now-hackneyed phrase of prayers beg many questions. What is the relationship between prayers and the crisis of gun violence gripping the nation? What is the role of faith and interfaith organizing to combat mass shootings? Where do religious and spiritual leaders, especially young leaders, fall in the contemporary gun debate and what is their unique power to change the conversation? These questions are on the minds of millennial activists and organizers of faith who are seeking, in this time of healing and urgent response, to redirect the narrative and reclaim the role of faith in gun violence prevention organizing.
I am a millennial person of faith and a gun violence prevention advocate and I have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of interfaith solidarity in times of mourning and healing from gun violence.
I am a Unitarian Universalist and a leader in an interfaith community in Boston, Massachusetts. During November 2015, I was studying in France and I was caught in the terrorist attacks that happened in Paris, in which 130 people were killed and nearly 350 wounded by gunmen wielding military-grade weapons. Some of the first hands that held my shaking ones and pulled me from the streets were people of faith; some of the first places to offer shelter were places of worship; some of the first words of healing were words of faith.
In the months following, as I returned home to the U.S., I was shocked to witness Islamophobic hatred and discrimination on the rise in my community. Targeted violence against Muslims in London tripled after the attacks; frequency of Islamophobic incidents in the U.S. spiked as well. Many of my Muslim friends were harassed in the streets.
I needed healing, my Muslim community members needed healing; the world needed solidarity. Several friends of mine, belonging to diverse faith traditions, began to organize dialogues between Muslim and non-Muslim students. We turned away from the narratives being perpetuated in the media and turned to face each other.
We sat up late in cramped living rooms, eating burritos, asking each other questions, accepting each other’s blunders and curiosities, and making space to grown and learn from each other. “Wait, how is Jesus a prophet in Islam?” and “Why don’t men cover their heads?” were met with smiles and patience, as were “How come you don’t work on Saturdays?” and “Wait, so how does the bread become the body?” Through this dialogue, we built solidarity. Through our connections, we made lasting friendships. And by way of this process, we healed.
We brought these conversations and connections into our wider interfaith community to open up dialogue about our differences and similarities. As we witnessed a rise in religious intolerance and discrimination, we also witnessed our solidarity strengthen. Many of our community members were under attack: mosques were threatened, synagogues burned, and the experience of surviving a hate-driven act of terror was used as political currency to justify barring refugees from entering the U.S.
In times of fear, the strength and leadership of young leaders of faith is crucial.
Following the Paris attacks, young people around the world organized and spoke out, rooted in their moral consciousness. In the U.S., it was not the first time this type of response occurred. In 2012, a gunmen opened fire in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six worshipers. This act of domestic terrorism had reverberating impact in this community and around the U.S.
Young Sikh community organizers and leaders raised their voices about the attack and the role of discrimination and racism in gun violence. At 18 years old, Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother was killed in the attack, became the first Sikh to testify before Congress. He spoke out about gun violence fueled by white supremacy and the need for the FBI to track hate crimes against Sikhs and Muslims.
And one year later, following diligent organizing by young Sikh organizers and the power of Saini’s testimony, the Department of Justice announced that it would track hate crimes against Sikh Americans, Hindus, Arabs, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Christians. For the first time, crimes driven by religious prejudice against these groups would be counted as hate crimes. This is the power of young leaders of faith in gun violence prevention.
The value of interfaith organizing by young people in the gun violence prevention movement lies not only in healing from trauma; it lies in advocacy and strategic campaign-building as well.
After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando in the summer of 2016, policy-makers and advocates began to push legislation nick-named “No fly, No buy.” This bill intended to ban people whose names are on the FBI Terrorist Watch List from purchasing firearms and was marketed as keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous extremists.
The bill is a clear instance of the need to include voices of faith in gun violence prevention organizing spaces. The Terrorist Watch List is seen by many as an Islamophobic and racist tool. The majority of the names on the list are people who are Muslim or Arab, despite the reality that in the U.S., since 1980, 94 percent of “terrorist” attacks were committed by non-Muslims, and there are many documented cases of innocent people whose names are on the list, for whom the FBI has no evidence of terrorist connections. Sunday’s shooter, Stephen Paddock, was not on this list.
This list has been criticized for its clear racial bias and Islamophobia by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council of American-Islamic Relations and its use by the gun violence prevention movement is alienating and isolating to Muslim members of the community. Relying on this list to prevent gun violence, despite being statistically ineffective, also lends the list undue legitimacy.
When major gun violence organizations endorsed the “No fly, No buy” legislative proposal, Muslim gun violence prevention advocates, anti-Islamophobia activists, and many young people spoke out against it. Interfaith friends of mine, with whom I had built relationships around burritos and questions about the Quran and Holy Communion, contacted me and explained why this legislation was discriminatory. My co-organizers and I listened to our Muslim colleagues’ concerns and, because of our commitments to interfaith solidarity, stood with them against this legislation.
The legislation eventually failed and millennial voices of faith reminded gun violence prevention advocates of the importance of legislation that keeps all people safe and does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race or religion.
When millennials join together, the power of unity in the face of fear-mongering and gun violence is felt.
In 2105, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the evangelical institution Liberty University, spoke brazenly about open carry gun laws on college campuses and encouraged students to arm themselves against “those Muslims,” saying students should, “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
These violent comments had a profound impact on evangelical students at Liberty and around the country. Many young advocates spoke out about how their evangelical faith leads them to believe in gun violence prevention. Wesley Walker, a seminary student at Liberty University, used biblical quotes to condemn Falwell’s promotion of open carry and show support for a Christian moral call to action for gun violence prevention.
Students of faith joined together, rooting themselves firmly in their Christian values to stand against Falwell’s bigoted rhetoric. Wheaton evangelical students penned an open letter to Falwell discussing the role of divisive fearful rhetoric in furthering religious discrimination. Princeton theological students also circulated a petition and letter to Falwell claiming, “Christians must stand against hate, against violence, and against fear. We must stand in friendship and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
These examples of the leadership by young people of diverse faiths highlight how crucial these voices are to revitalizing and reinvigorating the gun violence prevention movement in moments of urgency and division, such as the one we find ourselves in today.
According to data from the Center for Disease Control, 93 people are killed every day in acts of preventable gun violence. In the United States, upwards of 77 percent of the population identifies with a specific religious or spiritual tradition, with 68 percent of millennials identifying as people of faith. Faith communities play a vital role in crisis response, whether by organizing vigils and memorial services or offering care to those affected.
Many faith leaders – such as Pastor Mike McBride, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, and Imam Mohamed Magid – are speaking out about the crisis of gun violence impacting their communities. Organizations like Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, and the Interfaith Initiative Against Gun Violence of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are making connections between religious values and the need to put their faith into action to prevent gun violence. But where are the voices of young people in this growing movement?
These campaigns are changing the narrative bit by bit. But faith initiatives and gun violence prevention organizations must include and elevate the voices of young advocates of faith by centering their stories and following their leadership, especially in times of national tragedy.
On Monday morning, after the shooting in Las Vegas, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted, “Hear the cries of the injured. Be touched by the pain of those whose loved ones are dead. Love them. Pray-advocate-work with Love.” This is the mantra of young people of faith as we lead in this movement to turn “thoughts and prayers” into action.
Faced with another national tragedy, with more than 50 people dead and 500 people injured, millennials of faith are showing up for values-based policies and standing firm for the truth that we can have movements that don’t discriminate. We can use our solidarity to overcome division and heal after trauma. We can keep our communities safe without the use of fear and bigotry. And we will do so, together.